Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Triple Threat of Urasawas 20 Century Boys

There are manga. And then there are manga. Manga that are far superior in plot, drawing, and commercial success that I shall refer to them as the triple threat, much like what Broadway stars are seen for their singing, dancing and acting. This concept of a triple threat can be applied to all categories of art, and I shall be using it here to expand on Urasawas wonderful manga 20th Century Boys, or 20世紀少年.

20th Century Boys, which is a titled after the T. Rex song, has many different themes that mesh together to create a nostalgic but perpetual present kind of manga. By combining these two settings together, 20th Century Boys creates a kind of timeline balance that also reflects human development as well. We are who we were, but we aren't at the same time. The past builds who we become as we age and grow, yet we as humans are always in the present and pushing forward toward a different future. We are always in the present, but constantly reminded and brought back to the past. 

Balancing the Past with the Present in Character and Setting - 20th Century Shounen

Nature vs. Nurture is an argument that will be debated by scientists and psychologists until the end of mankind. How a person is build on a cellular level and how a person is development on en emotional and psychological level will forever be at odds. Is a person made by their circumstances or are they made by the small spiral encoding of their own DNA? I as a cultural scientist will never have the answer to that question, but when applying this question in literary expression I would be able to hold some kind of competency on it. Writers are people who are always struggling with this idea of identity and what constitutes the building blocks for a character. There is little doubt that 20th Century Boys will become one of Urasawa Naoki's most celebrated works. This political and person thriller brings about an unusual and thought provoking issue of childhood and it's lasting affects on not just the people immediately connected, but also the future. His use of character evolution and de-evolution, re-occurring timeline and cult imagery blend together to create a thrilling manga.

Seinen manga has a lot of freedom as medium then say shoujou or shounen manga. Since shounen and shoujo are always aiming for a certain age, they are forced to focus on themes and topics that would appeal to those readers. Shounen Jump and Hana Yume comic magazines are designed to sell to a younger audience, usually within the ages of 11 to 15. There are many other manga magazines that are geared to this age group, but these two carry some of the most popular titles that are on the market right now. As any avid manga reader would be able to describe, shounen manga and shoujo manga tend to stay within the boundaries given to them by what sells and what gets printed in the bigger manga magazines of Shounen Jump and Hana Yume. Seinen manga has much more room and freedom that shounen and shoujo. They have numerous themes, settings, genres, and characters that they can develop. They can be corky, violent, political and fall into niche interest group and go deeper into genres or themes than shounen and shoujo. They also are able to use the age range of their readers to evoke imagery and metaphors that the older generation would be able to follow and connect with. There are famous seinen manga such as Ashita no Joe, probably the most famous boxing manga, and Kamui Gaiden, of the Legend of Kamui. These manga illustrate the break that occurred in manga in the 60s and 70s. Both of these manga were geared toward the original manga generation that was aging into the working force that lived through the Bubble era of the 80s and it's crash in the 90s.

Urasawa Naoki's 20th Century Boys is a story filled with mystery, murder, cult activities, and finally resistance that starts with a failed prank during lunch hour in 1973. T. Rex's song '20th Century Boy' was played for the first time at Endou Kenji's middle school. Instead of the profound change Kenji thought would happen, life continued as if nothing had happened. From here on, we are reintroduced to Kenji as a 30-something working in his families convenience store with his mother and taking care of his niece Kanna in 1997. As the plot develops we learn that a cult leader called “Tomodachi” or “Friend”, has risen and gained a strong following and a new blood draining virus has broken out in Africa. In a vacant lot in 1969, a secret base made of weeds and filled with Shounen Magazines, a radio and the imaginations of adolescent boys becomes the unknown beginning of a story that will span decades and end of changing the world.

Kenji and the other members of what would later become the Kenji Faction are all characters in their 30s that lived and worked during the Bubble Economy of the 1980s. They represent a generation that lived through the time of plenty and the time of nothing. Yet when we first meet them, they are all working respectable jobs accept for Ochiai, or Otcho as he is called in the manga, who has disappeared and has not been heard from in years. They have moved on from their younger days of playing at the secret base and have become adults. Otcho was a successful businessmen during the Bubble Economy. He worked all day long and then played pool and drank so far into the night that even his own son mistook a passing businessmen as his father and was killed after he ran into traffic. After the death of his son he is driven in his grief to Thailand where he has to overcome not only his grief but his guilt over how little time he spent with his son. His lose mirrors the loss that thousands of Japanese faced when the Bubble burst; lost opportunities and security. Thrust into uncertainty, they are now living the Japanese life of work. They are the generation that conquered that world one decade and then lost it the next. After the Bubble economy burst, Japan was left with a lot of uncertainty.

20 March 1995 is a day that will never be forgotten in Japan and cult organization. Aum Shinrikyo carried out a sarin gas attact on 4 major lines in Tokyo, killing 7, injuring hundreds and scaring the Japanese people for all time. After the attack, there was a crack down on all cult activities and most Japanese are now very weary when they hear anything that resembles a cult. 

“Friend” is a cult leader. He hides his face behind white wrappings and one large eye with a hand pointing to the sky. He speaks of Collins, the third man on the three man team that walked on the moon, and evokes his sense of loneliness and “otherness”, garnering sympathy from his followers. His following has grown to hundreds of people from engineering students to policemen and the corruption has spread through. If somebody is in their way or is learning too much about “Friend” and his cult, they are “Banished”, killed with a virus that drains your body of blood. Cult actions are seen as “extreme” throughout the world and it sparks fear in many. To this day, new age religions and spirituality are adement that they are not “cults”, they are religious movements that are spiritual in nature but not a cult. This is a strong showing that even 17 years after the attack, the Japanese people are still very sensitive to what could happen if a cult were to become so big. By using a cult as the basis of world change, Urasawa paints a picture of not only what would have happened if a cult like Aum became so large, but also what it would take for the Japanese government to change.

The past, the present, and the future. Time is a constantly moving and constantly changing concept that identifies periods of social change and political unrest. Every country in the world is constantly going through these changes and has observed how these changes have influenced the present. The cycle of time and change is old and historians understand how the past affects the present and like to argue how the present will influence the future. Using time can enhance of confuse a writing if it is no done correctly. Flashbacks and time skips can only work if the author knows how to place them correctly within the context of the present action. 

The way that Urasawa uses time skips in 20th Century Boys builds the story instead of dividing it. By building the story through flashbacks and time skips, Urasawa connects events not only when they occurred but when the characters themselves are remembering them in the “present” of the manga. The most profound use of this time skip is when the anti-heroine Koizumi Kyoko is sent to Tomodachi Land after expressing interest in doing her history report on the Kenji Faction and the Bloody New Year Incident of 2000. She is put through a virtual game that recounts what really happened in 1969 and 1970. “Friend” made a whole virtual world that recounts what happened to him and his friends. We in the present are always connected to the past and the past and present always influence the future. The past is always linked to the present and the future in some way. When Kenji and his friends figure out that their play “Book of Prophecy” has turned into reality, they are forced to seek the truth in the past and find answers in places they never would have dreamed to look.

Urasawa is a master of thriller seinen manga. He has made his career on such manga as Monster, Master Keaton,and 20th Century Boys. I call him a triple threat because not only does he draw and write his own manga, he is a critical success and a commercial one. 20th Century Boys was made into a live action movie trilogy with T. Rex's '20th Century Boy' rolling through the ending credits. It is a solid work, maybe with a few too many characters, but there is never just 4 people who actually save the world, there are dozens of them. 

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